The Great Commission. Neither the words “great” nor “commission” are in the text, but the descriptor fits. This “authoritative order, charge, or direction” is “unusually large, extreme, and notable” (borrowing phrases from textbook definitions of both words). But why?
The sheer scope of the assignment is embodied in the two little words: all nations. This phrase is translated from the Greek panta ta ethnē. It is often the subject of significant discussion. When many people hearethnē, or “nations,” they think of countries. But when Jesus spoke those words, there were no countries as we understand them today. The nation-state is an invention of the modern era. In Jesus’ day, there were groups of people, and there were empires. So, Jesus spoke of peoples—all peoples.
When Jesus said “to all nations,” He did not mean exactly what missiologists like me want to read into the text—as if He was speaking of the eleven thousand ethnolinguistic people groups in the world today. However, He meant to identify more than simply the non-Jews or Gentiles. He spoke to a Jewish people who knew that God created the nations at Babel (Gen. 11:9), called the nations “up to Jerusalem” (Isa. 2), displayed the tongues of the nations at Pentecost (Acts 2), and will be worshiped by men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation forever (Rev. 7).
In other words, when Jesus spoke of going to the nations, the hearers of His day knew the immensity of this remarkable task. The idea of “the nations” was not new to them—though Jesus was changing how the people of God engaged them.
In speaking of the nations, Jesus reversed the direction of mission. It was no longer that the nations were to go up to Jerusalem (Isa. 2), but that the disciples were now to go out from Jerusalem (Acts 1:8).